Inside Twitter’s Extended Weekend of Doom

(Photo illustration by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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The ups and downs of social media platforms aren’t usually a focus of my writing. But they interest me to the extent they intersect with politics and public conversation in this country. You may have heard that over the weekend Twitter went into a kind of extended meltdown, rapidly introducing a series of “rate limiting” restrictions because the platform was having a hard time staying online. Behind the jargon of “rate limiting,” this essentially meant the site was forced to start rationing Tweets and the ability to engage with them, an ominous move for a company whose business is literally selling engagement. The site’s owner, Elon Musk, later claimed that this was in response to various online bad actors overwhelming the site’s infrastructure. The site’s (for the moment) CEO later claimed that it was all done out of the blue to catch the online bad guys unaware and off guard. Giving any advanced warning (even to employees, it turns out) would have given the online bad guys a heads up and allowed them to escape.

This is all such transparent nonsense that it beggars belief that even a company as chaotic and mercurially managed as Twitter under Elon Musk would try to claim it with any kind of straight face. We don’t know the precise details of what happened under the hood at Twitter. But the big picture is pretty clear. And you don’t need to be too versed in tech to understand it at that level. Think of it this way: You have an amusement park with 10,000 visitors a day. You cut staffing and ride maintenance so you can only accommodate 5,000 visitors a day. What happens is elementary: Things start falling apart and you’re forced to limit how many people can come in the front gate. That’s your “rate limiting,” rationing tweets.

Most of the drama about Musk and Twitter over the eight months since he took over the site has focused on his antic involvement in the online culture wars, a kind of public midlife crisis played out on the stage of a $44 billion vanity purchase. Probably the best way to understand Musk is that he’s another rich middle-aged divorced guy whose hot new girlfriend is white nationalism. But there’s a whole other part of the drama. He also made draconian staffing cuts, dramatically reduced the core technical capacity to keep the site online and also simply refused to pay various bills, figuring that he and the site are big enough that vendors won’t have the nerve to cut off services. While this was going on Musk’s public antics have savaged the company’s advertising revenues. They come together in a self-reinforcing cycle of budget cuts and revenue shortfalls. Since Twitter is no longer a public company it’s hard to know precisely what mix of expedients led to this weekend’s drama. But that big picture is clear enough.

The ongoing drama since last December has spawned a number of Twitter clone sites offering a refuge to those who want to escape Musk’s Twitter. But each has come up against the same challenge. What makes Twitter Twitter is that everyone’s there. It’s a classic case of inertia and network effects, a basic problem of collective action. Even if most of the site’s users would like to be somewhere else, those network effects keep most of them locked in place. The increasing instability of the site’s infrastructure has that effect even on those who are indifferent to Musk’s politics and conspiracy theories -— which is certainly the bulk of the site’s users. Most of the sites also lack the vast sums of money required to succeed at it. Musk has clearly relied on this fact and mostly he’s been on firm ground doing so.

I frequently note the subject lists I curate on Twitter — resources I find immensely helpful for keeping up on the news topics that interest me most. You can’t reproduce these on the competitor sites because the people I put on the lists aren’t there. Or maybe one or two of them are on one site and a couple on another. But that’s the same difference. Everybody being there is what makes Twitter Twitter.

But now something’s different. In the background, clearly sensing the expanding opportunity, Meta (née Facebook) has been prepping a Twitter replacement. Just as this absurd chaos was enfolding over the weekend they announced that “Threads” will go live tomorrow, July 6. It’s hard to know just how this will play out. But if anyone has the cash and network power to put Twitter out of its misery, it’s Meta. Unsurprisingly, since Facebook is terminally uncool and now basically the social network of old people, Threads will be launched as a discussion app that is part of Instagram. It will be its own separate app but in brand and possible account terms it will be part of Instagram.

This opens a number of possibilities. Numerous celebrities have millions or tens of millions of followers on Instagram. If they can simply port that clout to Threads, or if that’s a quick and relatively simple transition, that really does make it a potentially existential, near-term threat to Twitter.

Your guess is as good as mine how it will pan out. I tend to side with the people who think there won’t be a Twitter replacement. Even Twitter also won’t be the Twitter replacement. It’s probably on a glide path to Friendsterization where Musk acolytes and alt-righters will continue to taunt and own an ever-dwindling number of normal people who keep logging in. You’ll have fragmentation without a single place where everyone is. But whatever … I’m not here to do any big think on that front. What’s notable to me is that Elon Musk is clearly the best thing that ever happened to Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg and Facebook became the symbol, if not always the reality, of everything bad about the platforms and social media: the threats to privacy, monopoly, hate speech, inequality, election subversion, society-wide short attention spans. But Musk — through his mix of billionaire grievance and adolescent rage — has managed to make Zuckerberg now appear to be a comparatively benign figure.

I mean, think about it: His big pitch in 2020 was personally cutting a check for various local governments to fund their pandemic emergency election work. That may have been PR to make up for the disaster of 2016. But in comparison to Elon Musk it looks visionary. And there are worse things than doing good things at least in part for the PR boost. There was never anything about Zuckerberg that made you think he set out to do bad things or punish people for the sake of it. That’s been Musk’s calling card with Twitter: transgressive behavior, owning the libs. After all the essence of the whole story, the root of everything that followed, is that he was motivated to purchase Twitter because of his enmity toward the site’s most prominent users. Like Trump, predation is his thing.

I’ve seen tons of people cheering on Threads and hoping it deals a death blow to Twitter because Musk is such a loathsome and dystopic figure. No shame: I’m cheering Zuckerberg too. This may be Musk’s greatest accomplishment — making people cheer on Mark Zuckerberg, in its own way a more improbable and challenging feat than creating Space X or developing Tesla.

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